Bovine TB poses the “main threat” to Britain’s cattle industry – making the controversial West badger cull essential, Owen Paterson said yesterday.
The new Environment Secretary also used his Tory conference speech to pledge more help for rural businesses and better mobile phone and internet coverage in the countryside.
Mr Paterson, who was promoted in last month’s Cabinet reshuffle, made his keynote speech just before Queen guitarist Brian May arrived in Birmingham to step up his campaign against the cull.
The Government has decided on pilot schemes to cull badgers in Somerset and Gloucestershire, amid widespread opposition.
But Prime Minister David Cameron told the Western Daily Press this week how it was the right policy, a stance reinforced by Mr Paterson yesterday.
He said: “The main threat to our cattle industry comes from bovine TB; last year, TB led to the slaughter of 26,000 cattle at a cost of nearly £100 million.
“It is a cost that will rise to £1 billion over the next decade if this disease is left unchecked. Let’s be clear, bovine TB imposes a shattering financial and emotional cost on our farmers, their families and communities.
“This will only get worse if we continue the cowardly policy of inaction pursued by Labour in government.”
Mr Paterson told activists there was no easy solution, and while they were spending £15.5 million on research into vaccines, any breakthrough would be some way off.
“We must, therefore, learn from the experience of other countries. We have to use every tool at our disposal. That’s why we’re trialling a badger cull. We need healthy wildlife living alongside healthy cattle.
“Only if we work to eradicate the reservoir of TB in our badgers, will we have the strong and prosperous dairy industry the public wishes to see.”
Mr Paterson said the coalition – including his Agriculture Minister David Heath, Liberal Democrat Somerton & Frome MP – was reversing 13 years of “shameful neglect” of the countryside under Labour.
He urged people to buy British to help the food supply chain sector that supported 3.7 million jobs and contributed £90 billion a year to the economy.
“Just as we got behind Team GB this summer, we must get behind our farmers; by buying British, we can support our producers – and enjoy some of the best dairy products in the world.”
And he pledged to help the 500,000 business in rural England to grow, including by harnessing improvements in technology.
“Mobile phone coverage in rural areas is dire. The countryside must be the only place in the UK where our mobile phone conversations end with the word ‘Hello’?
“How many times have you lost the signal during an important call? How can you hope to run a business without reliable reception?”
Mr Paterson said they would keep working on mobile phone networks, and were investing £530 million on rolling out high-speed broadband to rural communities.
He also confirmed his commitment to flood protection, and insisted local communities must have a say in developments such as wind farms.
Mary Creagh, Labour’s Shadow Environment Secretary, told the Western Daily Press: “The Tory-led Government is pressing ahead with a badger cull despite their own official advice that it will cost more than it saves, put a huge strain on the police, and will spread bovine TB in the short term as badgers are disturbed by the shooting.
“Not a single scientist who participated in Labour’s badger cull trials has voiced support for the Government’s plans. It is a huge shame that the Government cut five of Labour’s six badger vaccine trials.”
“The Government should follow the lead of the Welsh Assembly Government and go all out on vaccination and biosecurity.”